Housing reform's victims

Density: A federal program aimed at revitalizing the city's public residential complexes has forced many former residents out of their homes.

September 24, 2001|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | By Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

When they offered Lawrence Campbell $50 to go away, the 44-year-old public housing tenant says he didn't hesitate before turning it down.

Campbell was living at Lexington Terrace in 1995 when he heard all the speeches about how the demolition of the crime-ridden high-rise building on Baltimore's west side that had been his home for a decade would help build a new safer community.

"He told us to dream, dream about what this neighborhood could be," said Campbell, recalling a speech by former Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.

But three years after hearing that speech Campbell is still waiting to get back to his old neighborhood.

"He didn't tell us," Campbell said, "that the dream meant we wouldn't be included."

Campbell is one of thousands of public housing tenants across the country who were told that a federal program known as HOPE VI would not only revitalize their neighborhoods but also give them new safe and secure homes.

HOPE VI, short for Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere, was created by Congress in 1992. With more than $4.2 billion, HOPE VI has paid for the demolition of nearly 100,000 public housing units around the country. The replacements are garden-style apartments, townhouses and single-family homes.

Billed by its backers as the last hope for public housing in the United States, HOPE VI has brought about the highly publicized demolition of the towering structures, such as Baltimore's Lafayette Courts and Lexington Terrace, that had become hotbeds of crime. In Baltimore and other cities, the staged demolitions have been televised live and the speech heard by Campbell has been repeated by housing officials across the country.

From the start, officials in Baltimore and elsewhere made clear that the result would be fewer residences. Indeed, the program is designed to reduce the density of housing for the poor.

And as Campbell and others have discovered, getting back into the rebuilt apartments isn't always possible. He is one of thousands across the country who have not been able to return to their neighborhoods after the razing and rebuilding.

Tenant advocate groups and academics who have studied the HOPE VI projects say you have to look at the numbers. By design, the rebuilt projects have fewer living units, and often the majority of those new units are earmarked not for the poorest of the poor but for higher-income families and first-time homebuyers.

The goal was to create new mixed-income communities where low-income families would learn from the example of others.

Data provided by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City show that once all the projects are completed, the number of subsidized rental housing units available for low-income families in the HOPE VI developments here will shrink from a high of 3,633 to 943, a reduction of 75 percent.

In the process, according to a report from the Inspector General in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city has lost track of hundreds of former residents.

Critics of Baltimore's HOPE VI efforts include the woman credited with creating the program, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.

"Danny Henson simply dumped people on the neighborhoods," she said. "There was no planning. They did not look at the future of these residents the way they should have."

The senator emphasized that she believes HOPE VI nationally has been a success. But Mikulski said she would give Baltimore a "C or C+" for its efforts.

Henson disagrees. "In my experience," he said, "I think that Baltimore did the best job of any place in the country so far. "

Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he is confident that all of the former high-rise residents are better off if only because they are no longer in the high-rises. He acknowledged that there were some missteps in the early phases of the relocation but said residents were simply mistaken if they thought they could all move into the rebuilt projects.

The same computations apply nationally, experts say.

"You keep reading in the papers that the housing authorities will do everything they can to see that people get back, but it's just not possible," said Wayne Sherwood, an independent Maryland housing consultant who publishes a housing industry newsletter. "It's simple math. At best about 40 percent of the units for low-income people will be replaced, and then they change the rules to make it even more difficult for former tenants."

Delores Jones, a former Lafayette Courts resident, said, "I went to a lot of meetings where people were led to believe they would be able to come back, but nobody asked, `Where are they going to fit?'"

Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, a staunch supporter of HOPE VI, isn't at all defensive about the numbers. "We've replaced quantity with quality," the commissioner said.

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